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Seventeen Years

Student 24's picture

It was a gorgeous and sunny day this Saturday, and I had had quite a pleasant and relaxing morning sitting in a café, reading, and doodling around with thoughts in my head and on paper. Later I walked to the street corner of the subway station to meet two of the girls with whom I’d come into the city. We were going to wait a while to see if the other girls would catch up with us before we went down into the subway.

We were at the intersection of Market and Fifth Streets, and there were cars and people and tour buses passing on by. At one point, a woman walked towards us, greeting some of the other people on the block walking by us. She came over to us, smiling and exuding cheerfulness, and asked us where we were going. “We’re on our way home,” I said, smiling back at her. She was thin, about my height, wearing faded, well-worn clothes, an army-style hat over her very little hair, and with a satchel strapped across her shoulder. She held a beer can in a brown paper bag in her left hand and had a glassy look in her eye like she was ready to tell us a story.

“Oh, that’s great,” she grinned, “I’m on my way home too. But I don’t wanna go. I just been having such a good time with my friend these past few days. But it’s time for me to go home.” She was speaking really fast and excitedly and mumbled many words so I had a hard time hearing everything, but overall I was able to follow. “I been with my friend, and we been gamblin’ around Market Street and havin’ a real good time.” I nodded. “I’m homeless, you know. I been homeless since 1996.” I did the math quickly in my head. Seventeen years.

She told us that she lives on Arch Street in a homeless shelter for women, run by a group of nuns. “Do you know the Benjamin Franklin Bridge?” We said yes. “Under that bridge there, that used to be my home. I been homeless since 1996. My family a mess. Dad who fucked up his life with drugs. Died when he was 20, injecting himself with—” She shook her head abruptly and waved her arm as if aggressively brushing away the statement.

“Jesus,” I breathed. 

She began talking about the shelter again, how great it was. A few days ago there was a group of students from University of Pennsylvania – architecture students – coming to look at redesigning the building. “But some of us, we get mad, ‘cause the students, they been touching our blankets and all our stuff. That ain’t right. But, you know, they be askin’, ‘Who’s the big Eagles fan here?’ ‘cause they see that I got all Eagles posters and banner all over my wall.” She beamed with pride. I grinned. It was hard not to, she was so cheery.

“My name is Sherry,” she said. I pointed to her neck, on which was printed a tattoo of the name ‘Steven.’

“Who’s Steven?” I asked.

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Does he have your name tattooed on himself too?”

Sherry rolled her eyes and said he didn’t, but when he does, “he oughta get it on his damn forehead.” We laughed.

We kept chatting some more, and at some point the topic switched to the shooting of the woman driving her car into the Capital building a few days ago, with an infant child in the back. “How fucked up is that? Tell me, how fucked up is that?” Sherry was twitching angrily.

“What’s worst is that these fucked up things keep on happening everywhere, every day,” I said. After a pause I looked over at the girls, and asked if we should keep waiting or get ready to leave. We decided to leave, but before we went down into the subway, Sherry asked if I could help her get something to eat. I only had two dollars, but it was enough for something at the hot dog stand. We said goodbye and headed down into the subway.

To be honest, I would have stayed and gotten something to eat with her, so that we could have kept talking. I wanted to know more about the shelter, and about her friends, gambling, and other things she did for fun. I wanted to know about her mother, and the rest of her family. I wanted to know what opinions she had about anything. How she thought. I wanted to listen to her.

I kept thinking about Sherry as we took the subway through West Philadelphia. Out the window I watched the city pass by, once we emerged from the underground portion of the line. I didn’t see many people. A few elderly slowly walking down some streets with grocery bags. It was a mosaic of deteriorating townhouses. Boarded up windows. Metal plates nailed over storefronts, decorated with graffiti, murals, flyers. Some houses were in the middle of being torn down. Or falling down. Bricks, rubble, blocks of concrete and roof tiles of houses spilling back into themselves. Swallowing their own construction. 

And where are people? They’re not sitting on porches, they’re not shopping, they’re not playing basketball on vacant lots or riding bikes through alleyways. Certainly no tourism would be taking place in neighbourhoods like these. 

Certainly no contrast between peoples would be seen in neighbourhoods like these. Not like in Old Town and the center of the city, where the direct juxtaposition of tourists, richer, out-of-town-folk visiting attractions and using the city as a place of play with the shabby, homeless people is expected to the point it is taken to be standard. A standard expectation of the city experience. Standard. Characteristic. Leading towards fundamental. Blasé. Isn’t that right, Simmel?

Are Sherry’s seventeen years of homelessness standard? Is her experience giving character to Philadelphia? Or is her function to be ignored in the fundamental nature of city life?

Personally, given my character and mentality being rooted in my rootlessness and baselessness, I feel a liberty that allows me to interact with both sides of this contrast of people in the same urban environment. I feel like I have nothing to lose or behind which to hide because there is so much I want to know from people. I feel like when I study cities as places of social interaction, dynamic, and development, there is a tendency to forget that I am studying the effects of compiling many, many, many singular, individual, unique human beings into one space. Instead, there is focus on the interaction, the dynamic, and the social development. These are the spaces, the connections, the links, the separations between these individuals. These are the in-between. These are the projections of relation and association among subjects, rather than the subjects themselves.

Maybe I don’t want to look at the big picture, because it gets too fogged up, blurred, and generalised with these projections. I find the individual much more intriguing and actually relevant.


Taylor Milne's picture

Agatha uses this essay to

Agatha uses this essay to show her audience the context through which she had this meaningful conversation with a homeless person. The work she is doing is trying to explain to her audience why this conversation is important, and why it stuck out as the focus of her paper in relation to Philadelphia. The work that we do as readers is to try and get the same emotions out of the converstation, and find the same relation to the city, from the same point of view. Bringing the audience to a grimier and almost more "real" side of Philadelphia than those we have been led into with the class.

pialikesowls's picture

Agatha is creating context

Agatha is creating context for the reader. It is effective in helping us understand what is going on and leaves us focused and not confused. The phrase "doodling around with thoughts in my head and on paper" is playful and has me thinking about what story she'll tell. As a reader, I play and work by wondering what story she will tell, though the first paragraph isn't very dense. However, Agatha is playing by setting up a stage for the rest of the essay.